2010 TBR, Book Review, Bret Easton Ellis, Fiction, GLBT Challenge

Review: The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis

The Rules of Attraction takes place at New England’s Camden College – the starting point for many characters in Ellis’s later novels.  The novel is written in the epistolary fashion – each segment is a different character’s journal-type entry.  Sometimes these segments match up with what other characters are saying and sometimes they don’t (intrigue! mystery!).  The novel begins in the middle of a sentence and ends in the middle of a sentence, the author intending to make the reader believe that the story is cyclical – no beginning, no end, just boring repetition of the same mindless, emotionless patterns, themes, and events.
The Good
There were a few things I enjoyed about this novel, though I wish I would have read the Ellis books in sequence.  Still, I suppose this segment almost works well as a “prequel” to the other novels. 
I enjoyed the self-indulgent way that Ellis begins the story in the middle of the story (as if the reader is suddenly thrust into this group of “friends,” without prior knowledge, but with full, unsurprised acceptance) and then ends the story in the middle of a sentence (the reader fully knowing that, though these characters are going off for summer, Camden College will be the same when everyone returns – no surprises, no expectations that things will be different).  This very much reminds me of college – of the dreams and compromises we all have and make when we “go away” to school.  The lives we lead away from our family, parents, home towns, and the way we drift away, back into and out of it as summer comes and goes.
Another aspect of this novel which I found appealing was the epistolary style.  Each segment is written by a different character (though the same group of people throughout).  You don’t exactly get the feeling that these are journal entries, though, except for those italicized entries of perhaps the most tragic character – and these are particularly set apart so as to make the distinction from the rest of the group.  The rest of the entries seem to be brief insights into the character’s thoughts – none of which can be entirely trusted.  Sean, for instance, seems to be having an affair with Paul throughout the novel; yet, while Paul is open about it in his segments, Sean never mentions their “goings-on” nor does he ever even allude to it.  
Finally, I enjoyed and appreciated, as always, the honesty.  The brutality and pointlessness – the exposed wounds of these disillusioned, dishonest, self-centered, superficial bunch of rich, drugged-out nobodies, all of whom are certainly flunking out of college, but who will somehow graduate and go on to run companies, banks – drive expensive cars, travel Europe.  Those not so lucky – the scholarship kids – are the minor characters, the nothings, the nobodies with real problems, and the ones who are most slighted and damaged by this group who couldn’t really care less. It brought my college experience hurtling back, full force – and I imagine many people who had the opportunity to go away to college, to live in the dorms, to go to frat parties, local townie bars, to ditch class, pile into cars, wander around on cold nights just looking for something or someone to do.  Brilliantly realistic – and, as Gore Vidal put it, “wonderfully comic.”
The Bad
Too much sex and too much drug-induced nonsense.  Part of what makes this novel so great (the honesty) is also it’s downfall.  The sense of trudging through (not really trudging, since the pages turn so fast and the story is rather interesting, if morbid and sad) a book with no point, no purpose, no meaning.  And, yes, that is Ellis’s point – the lack of purpose and meaning to any of these people’s lives.  But there is no sense of redemption for any of the characters.  No revelatory moments, really.  No chance that any of these characters were in any way changed, that their experiences might have imbued them with a certain sense of reality – of growth.  Even if much of what Ellis is getting at in The Rules of Attraction is true, it’s still hard to believe that not one person would have learned anything about anything. 
I also can’t help but compare this to Ellis’s other novels and while this one may stand out more than, say, The Informers, it certainly does not compare in depth or breadth or impact as, for instance, Glamorama.  The story is good – but not great.  The point is well-taken, but not exactly revelatory or astonishingly executed.  The style is interesting, engaging, and perhaps even a bit “cutting-edge” (very 80s), but all of that doesn’t add up to a Glamorama or an American Psycho both of which were truly revolutionary and exposed the 80s and 90s for what they were: decades of decadence, disconnect, self-indulgence, and frightening pointlessness.
The Final Verdict 3.5 out of 5.0
I truly did appreciate what Ellis was trying to say and I think The Rules of Attraction is a great prelude to what Ellis did eventually accomplish with Glamorama.  Still, while I think the story was interesting and engaging, the characters fairly well-developed and understood, and the setting more than familiar to those who have had the “college experience,” I do not think that there was much ground-breaking revelation.  No real distinction in style or language.  There is much allusion to William Burroughs and, perhaps, a bit of Kerouac blended in for good measure.  All-in-all, I enjoyed the book but I can’t help compare it to Ellis’s other works and, in doing so, find that this one falls just a bit short.
Book Review, Bret Easton Ellis, Fiction, Gay Lit

Review: Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis

Glamorama is a twisted, disgusting, brilliant parody of all that was the early-1990’s. This book is Valley of the Dolls meets Naked Lunch meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets James Bond. Don’t think the combination is possible? Think again. Ellis demonstrates a superb understanding of cultural critique and is creative enough to satirize with seriousness and hilarity simultaneously. If you can get through the first two hundred or so pages of idiotic dialogue (another stroke of narrative brilliance, really, but still hard to wade through), you will be rewarded. Mid-way through the novel, the story takes an unexpected and inexplicable turn. Truly, the twist is never reconciled within the novel and the reader is left feeling literally mind-fucked. No one is who they appear to be, no one works for whom they appear to work (sometimes the characters themselves don’t even realize it). Everyone gets blown up, drugged out, beaten, sodomized, and the smell of feces permeates the latter portion of the story (which takes place in France – coincidence or another cultural critique?). I don’t understand the confetti, I don’t understand the camera crews or the many, many scripts – but am I supposed to? “The better you look, the more you see.”

Book Review, Bret Easton Ellis, Fiction, Gay Lit

Review: The Informers by Bret Easton Ellis

The Informers is like the sick love-child of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust. While this collection of interweaving short stories is not as shocking or subversive as, say, Glamorama, it is equally blunt in it’s chastisement of Hollywood glitz & glam phoniness (like Holden Caufiled on crack). Ellis’s dystopic vision of Hollywood is a contemporary re-imagining of what West did with Day of the Locust, and of what Bukowski did with Ham on Rye. It’s as honest as John Fante’s Ask the Dust in it’s critique of “west coast envy.” What Ellis does truly brilliantly, I think, is presenting believable (most of the time) characters who truly feel blessed and “happy” to be living in L.A., yet the reader gets a look at what’s going on under the surface, and it is not pretty. The vampires were a stretch, and the child murder was terrifying, but combined and/or inter-mixed with the rest of the more believable shorts – a father trying to reconnect with his son, a mother lusting over young (young) men, a wannabe rockstar abusing his female fans – sexually and physically, well, you get the point that this is L.A. and that the fantasy is fresh, fun, beautiful, but the reality is dark, disturbing, and dangerous. I’m not sure there’s been a more on-the-money satirist since Mark Twain or Jane Austen – if only they had been more free to express themselves.